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article imageSwiss to keep skiing through pandemic, even as EU eyes ban

By Agn├Ęs PEDRERO (AFP)     Nov 26, 2020 in Travel

As EU countries debate a bloc-wide ban on ski holidays to curb coronavirus infections, downhill enthusiasts may be tempted to head to non-member Switzerland, where the winter season is well underway.

Germany and Italy were on Thursday pushing for Europe to ban ski holidays as the number of worldwide infections reached a new peak of more than 60 million.

Paris has said the French are welcome to visit the country's resorts, as long as they don't ski, while Austria has warned that an EU-wide ban would be "disastrous" for the country's tourism-reliant economy.

In Switzerland meanwhile, which has been hard-hit by the second wave of Covid-19 infections, the authorities, ski and tourism sectors have stood united behind the decision to keep the winter season going, after the spring season was cut short by the first wave.

"In Switzerland, we can go skiing, with protection plans in place," Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset told reporters Thursday.

He added, though, that the government would re-examine the situation before the Christmas holidays, because even though decisions on what parts of the economy should shut down are generally left to the Swiss cantons, or states, the federal government can step in if it deems the situation unsafe.

- Skiing at Christmas -

For now, Bern is opting to trust people to respect the protection measures put in place by chairlift operators and ski schools, including facemask requirements everywhere except on the slopes.

For weeks now  the Swiss have been invited to hit the slopes at resorts like Verbier  Gstaad and Saa...
For weeks now, the Swiss have been invited to hit the slopes at resorts like Verbier, Gstaad and Saas-Fee
Fabrice COFFRINI, AFP

"In Switzerland, the government, the authorities and the tourism industry are all convinced that the Swiss way is for now the right one, and that the winter season can go ahead safely," Veronique Kanel, spokeswoman for the national tourism office, told AFP.

Monday's launch of the winter ski season received backing from President Simonetta Sommaruga, who said she was "counting on the population to help us ensure this is a successful winter."

Swiss authorities have hailed stringent measures put in place by the operators of Switzerland's more than 2,400 ski-lift installations, which include button lifts, t-bars, chairlifts, and cable cars.

Implementation has meanwhile not always been smooth. A picture of skiers packed together as they queued for a lift in Zermatt earlier this month sparked outrage, and police have been asked to intervene on several occasions.

For weeks now, the Swiss have been invited to hit the slopes at resorts like Verbier, Gstaad and Saas-Fee.

Even with the resorts open  the outlook for Switzerland's ski and tourism sector remains dim
Even with the resorts open, the outlook for Switzerland's ski and tourism sector remains dim
Fabrice COFFRINI, AFP

"We'll ski at Christmas," Christophe Darbellay, the regional government chief in the southwestern canton of Wallis, insisted to AFP.

The region, which counts some of Switzerland's biggest ski resorts, has already opened its hotels back up after a brief shutdown and restaurants are due to be back in business in mid-December.

- Closure 'not an option' -

"More than ever, people need fresh air, snow, space," Darbellay said, voicing disbelief at the decision in neighbouring France to shut ski lifts, but not the metros in Paris.

In Wallis, shutting down the resorts "is not an option," he said.

If Switzerland does become the only country with open slopes in the Alps, its resorts could see some ardent ski enthusiasts from across Europe show up, but they are not bracing for a massive influx of foreign tourists.

"We do not expect to have huge numbers of Europeans on the Swiss slopes, given the travel and movement restrictions in place in European countries," Kanel said, pointing out that Germany for instance considered Switzerland a high-risk zone.

And even with the resorts open, the outlook for Switzerland's ski and tourism sector remains dim.

A study conducted by Switzerland Tourism in October showed that accommodation reservations in the mountains over the Christmas holiday were 19 percent lower than last year, while ski holiday bookings had shrunk 28 percent.

Floriane Moerch, the spokeswoman for an association of some 350 Swiss ski-lift operating companies, told AFP the industry was deeply concerned about what lies ahead.

"A ski-lift shutdown would be very difficult."

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